Journalism? No, We Do Public Relations
Nothing but good news: For several years, Portland Press Herald staff writer David Hench has turned out copy that makes it appear he’s some sort of unofficial spokesman for Maine’s law-enforcement agencies. Hench churns out the good news, and if the cops screw up, they can count on Hench to spin the story their way.
When Portland police made some questionable moves last year in raiding a Park Avenue apartment that contained explosive devices, Hench’s stories smoothed over the rough spots. When the local department picked up a surplus military vehicle, dubbed by some as “a tank,” Hench kept inconvenient questions about why such a piece of equipment was needed from interfering with his positive take on the acquisition.
In spite of persistent problems between the Portland P.D. and various immigrant communities, Hench has always seen the bright side.
Now, Hench’s rah-rah approach to cop coverage seems to have even more support from his editors.
On January 23, the Press Herald devoted a front-page photo and the entire back page of the first section to the Portland Police Department’s annual awards.
In the past, this event – essentially, an attempt to polish the department’s image – had merited coverage from the paper, but it was limited to a single story in the local section.
For this upgraded effort to curry favor with the cops, Hench churned out gushy copy (“To hear Officer Stephen Black tell it, bravery is just part of the job. So too is humility”), which conveniently ignored any hints of problems with the local Somali community, bar patrons in the Old Port or alleged Asian gang activity. To read this article, you’d thing Portland’s blues had it all under control.
This fawning isn’t limited to the municipal department. On January 25, Hench offered a glowing profile of the “new” resident agent for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
This agent actually arrived in Portland last May, but what’s the rush.
As an illustration of how far this drug enforcer has come in developing inter-agency cooperation in narcotics investigations, Hench cites a 2003 incident in which Portland cops with guns drawn had burst in on DEA agents arresting suspected dealers. The locals hadn’t known there was a major federal investigation underway.
Which raises a question. Where was Hench’s investigative piece in ’03 about this lack of cooperation, its causes and its consequences? Seven years later, when he finally gets around to mentioning the problem, it’s only to assure us it’s solved.
There’s danger in the news media getting too cozy with law enforcement. It inevitably results in a loss of objectivity and a tendency to overlook abuses. Publicity-hungry cops like former Portland Chief Michael Chitwood took advantage of such an atmosphere (both before Hench took over the beat and afterwards) to turn his department in errant directions that have taken years to correct.
It’s possible to be respectful of the difficult job law enforcement personnel face without becoming their tool.
How the sausage was made: The Portland Daily Sun gave visitors to its Web site on January 23 what seems to have been an inadvertent look behind the scenes.
Staff writer David Carkhuff’s story on Portland’s Widgery Wharf was preceded by his notes, including historical research and interviews.
From this, it’s easy to conclude Carkhuff worked diligently on the piece. The Web editor, not so much.
The extra material had vanished by Jan. 25.
Vacating the Zone: WZON in Dover-Foxcroft (103.1 FM) has been airing progressive talk shows less than a month, but the Stephen King-owned station is already scrambling to make changes in its lineup. According to North East Radio Watch, WZON lost three daily shows distributed by the now-defunct Air America network – Ron Reagan, Montel Williams and “Clout.” No word on what’s taking their place (the Web site hadn’t been updated as of late morning on January 25), although listeners closer to the source will probably find out shortly.
Shedding light on Ellie Light: On January 21, the Bangor Daily News ran a letter praising the Obama administration signed by “Ellie Light,” who claimed to live in Bangor.
My right-wing cousin “mediadog” at the As Maine Goes Web site noticed it and pointed out that Light was exposed on January 22 by Sabrina Eaton of the Cleveland Plain Dealer as having written similar letters to papers all across the country, in each case claiming an address in that publication’s circulation area.
Apparently, the Bangor paper has given up verifying the authenticity of letters to the editor before it publishes them.
Ground too coarse: Lewiston Sun Journal staff writer Rebekah Metzler’s January 23 column, “The Political Grind,”had an intriguing headline: “Questions have some candidates squirming.”
Unfortunately, Metzler only gave us examples of the questions that were asked at a gubernatorial-candidate debate on January 20 in South Portland (“Raise taxes or cut state subsidies for businesses?” “Raise taxes or close the University of Southern Maine campus?”). She never said how anyone answered or which Blaine House hopefuls had the squirms.
So, what was the point?
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org